In For a Penny: Dead Men tell No Tales

Charles Lewis contemplates the Great Beyond.

“Death Found an Author Writing His Life” (1827) by E. Hull

“Death Found an Author Writing His Life” (1827) by E. Hull

“I’ve got my own life to live
I’m the one that’s going to have to die
When it’s time for me to die
So let me live my life the way I want to”
– Jimi Hendrix, “If 6 was 9”, Axis: Bold as Love

Funny thing about writing a play about death: it makes you think a lot about dying. Who knew? And if you want to get technical, the play in question isn’t actually about death, but the lack thereof. Let me explain…

I’m writing the Opening Night Party play for this year’s SF Olympians Festival. You may or may not recall that last year I occasionally dedicated this column to exploring the development process of said festival. If so, you may also recall that my final entry, “A Pre-Post-Mortem”, attempted to take an optimistic look at death, a frequent topic in a festival revolving around Greek mythology. Many Greek myths look at death not as the end of the journey, but rather the beginning of the next journey. For them, death wasn’t something to be dwelt upon – for lack of a better term – as it is today. Still, they acknowledged it as an inevitability and possibly one step closer to achieving greatness.

The Egyptians are a different story all together: everything was about death. EVERYTHING. Perhaps that’s not fair – it may be more accurate to say that they were about life, which they felt continued after death. But that doesn’t change the fact that quite a lot of those lives were spent in preparation for their inevitable deaths. And when they did die, everyone took notice.

Remember, these were once decked out in shiny Tura Limestone.

Remember, these were once decked out in shiny Tura Limestone.

So when writing for a Greek mythos fest that’s now added Egyptian gods for good measure, it’s no surprise to find death at every turn.

Except, of course, in my play. The script (working title: It’s a Fucking Dylan Thomas Poem!) is about characters for whom, shall we say, death is not a problem. No matter how much harm they inflict on themselves or each other, they never need to worry about shuffling off this mortal coil. It’s not quite a Tuck Everlasting situation, but they live lives (that they believe are) without consequence. Well, when you live your life knowing you can get away with anything, you’ll eventually ask yourself what the point of living is. And what’s the point of asking that question if you’re never going to die?

Naturally I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about dying. Not taking my own life – when you’ve known as many people as I have who attempted suicide right in front of you, it kinda puts you off the idea – but just what will or won’t be said when I’m gone. It’ll be completely out of my control, but that doesn’t stop me from contemplating what would be said, if anything at all. As I’ve been tinkering with this script over the past few months, I began to notice that whenever I’d seriously start to write notes or dialogue, a celebrity would die. (Not my fault, I swear!)

Such high-profile deaths inevitably lead to a lot of fawning eulogies, as well as some scathing posthumous criticisms. For me, the most interesting comment came after Prince’s death. With no legal will specifying the division of his $300m estate, Time asked Snoop Dogg if he’d made preparations for his family. He doesn’t. “I don’t give a fuck when I’m dead.”

As much as I disagree with the callous way a multi-millionaire refuses to make sure his family is protected once he’s gone, I have to say that I admire his response. He seems to understand the way the futility of worrying about something that will be completely out of his control. Though I don’t agree with how he does it, I like how he accepts the fact that he only has control for a finite amount of time, then everyone will be on their own.

Of course, it’s still Snoop Dogg, so he was probably high off his ass when he said it.

The problem with never wanting to talk about death is that it makes you unprepared for it. What both confounds and fascinates me about the characters I’m writing is that they’re unprepared for what life has in store when death never comes. They have to find reasons to keep living because it’s the one thing they’ll always do. What does that do to a person’s sense of health, spirituality, or ability to form lasting relationships?

I’m not quite sure, but as I keep writing, they’ll find out or attempt to die trying.

Charles Lewis III want you to celebrate life and art by contributing to this year’s Olympians Festival Indiegogo campaign. His script will be read during the Opening Night party on Sunday, October 2nd.

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Theater Around The Bay: The Stuart Excellence In Bay Area Theater Awards for 2015

Stuart Bousel ends the year with 6,000 words. Which you know… is actually less than usual. 

You may not have noticed it, but until my recent interview by Barbara Jwanouskos, I took a year off from writing for the blog.

This was for a number of reasons, including wanting to make more space for others, and having to use some of our space for promoting shows since Theater Pub returned to putting out 12 shows a year, thanks entirely to Rob Ready, Dan Williams, and Kevin Fink at PianoFight for both providing and insisting we take them up on their offer of a new venue, and my incredible support staff who put this year together by the skin of their teeth: Megan Cohen, James Grady, Sara Judge, Cody Rishell, Marissa Skudlarek, and most of all Tonya Narvaez and Meghan Trowbridge. Additionally, I just kind of took a general break from both writing and publicly postulating, partly for my own sanity and mostly because I wanted to do a lot of listening. At the end of last year, as was apparent to many, I was sort of drowning in the overwhelm of too many voices, from adulatory to disparaging, plaintive to dismissive. I made a decision to stand still and listen, in the hopes I’d eventually find my way back to my voice. For the record, it worked, thanks in large part of a few really good friends- but more on that later.

So, Awards… do I feel better about them than I did last year? Eh, more or less. I’ve come to accept them for what they are, and I’m thankful we have an awards system, helmed by Theater Bay Area, that is more or less transparent, and based on a peer adjudication pool that is more or less quantifiable (certainly identifiable), tiered into a system that more or less recognizes the need to evaluate artists with their resources and limitations taken into account. I think it’s a tremendous loss that Robert Sokol, who did the bulk of the grunt work to make these Awards a reality, from vetting each ballot last year to making the rounds of every committee to ensure the concerns of TBA members were actually heard, is no longer with the Awards or TBA- and anyone who knows how hard I grilled Robert in meetings last year knows that I am not saying that lightly or affectionately. There are moments I have starred daggers into Robert across a conference table and meant each and every one of them, but at the end of the day, he brought a great deal of integrity to the Awards- as much as any awards system can have- and he was devoted to them and he has not been adequately replaced. Which is not to say the folks running things now are doing a bad job necessarily- but the job changed and nobody has really moved into his place, duties have just been sort of parceled out, and while I don’t feel this has necessarily compromised the integrity of the Awards themselves, yeah, some things and people are falling through the cracks. Like my whole committee, for instance, which was given no chance to have input on the Awards this year. But then, being forgotten is, sadly, sort of par for the course of the Individual Services Committee.

Speaking of… so I have left the ISC and the Board of TBA. It happened weeks ago, right after the last meeting of the year, so I feel like it’s okay to talk about it publicly now. Or if it’s not, well… somebody should have sent me an email about that. Oh well.

Anyway, yes, I stepped down. After three years on the ISC- which I loved- and one year on the Board- which I hated every second of- I decided that TBA and I were not a good fit for one another. This does not mean I think TBA is a bad organization or anything like that- I am still a member, as is San Francisco Theater Pub, and I believe that TBA has the potential to be a great service organization and an ally to the artists of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater scene, and an advocate for the arts in general. In some ways, it already is all of those things. In some ways- it’s got a long ways to go, and to TBA’s credit no one there is unaware of that and there is a lot of energy being expended in trying to improve. In the end, my decision to leave is a combination of many things, like all decisions, but it comes down this: the organization’s priorities are not my own, and while I joined the org in a volunteer capacity to understand it better, I also wanted to help create positive changes in the Bay Area theater scene. And the fact is, I wasn’t really being tapped for that, despite having been invited in. Boards are really all about raising money, when it comes right down to it. And like, I get that. But I’m an artist. A Struggling Artist. I got enough of that headache in my life already, you know?

So, hey, everybody, back to Awards as subject (and yes, don’t worry, the Stueys). Clearly I had some really heavy misgivings about whether or not I was, through well-intentioned silliness, perpetuating this kind of social ill, something I had never really thought about until I started winning awards myself, and experiencing all the highs (random theater companies suddenly being interested in my writing, feeling validated by my peers) and lows (friends telling me all the reasons I didn’t deserve recognition, or just sucked in general) that come with success of any kind. This year I was nominated for two more awards, and a show I directed was nominated for nine total, and I didn’t win any and neither did the show and you know what: I kind of enjoyed it more. Yes, I loved winning last year- I ADMIT IT. But not winning (which is not the same as “losing”, by the way) meant I could get drunk with my friends and dance and kiss people at the party and not worry about what this all meant and was I worthy and was I accidentally doing anything to offend all the people who didn’t win, and was I supposed to react a certain way and what if I did or didn’t? Plus some people I really adore and respect won awards this year and that was lovely because they deserve recognition.

Which by the way is all an award/Award is- some people saying you did a good job. Which only means something if you think it does. And if you think you did a good job.

Cut to me, having drinks with a local writer whose brain is my favorite critical brain in the Bay Area and at some point she says/I paraphrase, “I’m so glad you have made peace with all that. You do so much and you do it well and it is okay to be proud of that- and haters be damned.”

I reply/paraphrase, “Thank you. I am a deeply insecure human being in an industry that battens on insecurity. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say, with assurity, that I deserve anything, let alone an Award. But I am glad that play won one, because all said and done- I am really proud of that play.”

The Bay Area Theater Scene, friends/haters. So much insecurity. So much to be proud of.

The 2015 Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theatre Awards

1. The Peter O’Toole Award For General Awesomeness- Dale Albright

True story: a couple of weeks ago I was a few egg nogs in and chatting with a co-worker while net surfing and lazily, without thinking, reposted Peter O’Toole’s death notice on Facebook, as if it was news. How embarrassing! Especially as I created this award the year Peter died (the first time) with the idea that it would be all about recognizing the people we often fail to recognize because they are so consistently awesome. Way to prove my own point, huh? Well, regardless, I couldn’t be more earnest this year when I give the award to Dale Albright, who may be the Bay Area Theater scene’s most unsung, unsung hero (he is the Program Director for TBA, if you didn’t know). Seriously, this man is earning his keep and then some and I would not have spent three years giving up my time if it wasn’t for Dale’s passion and commitment to TBA and everything it is and could be. And sure, he’s also a damn fine actor and director, but whatever: he a phenomenal human. He really and truly cares, he works himself to the bone on our behalf, and he does it all with a kind of insane but sincere modesty. No one I have ever spoken to about Dale has anything but incredible admiration for him and I’m not talking about a handful of people- I’m talking about hundreds of them. I know a lot of people.

2. Best Short Play- “Sparse Pubic Hair” by Lorraine Midanik, directed by Laylah Muran de Assereto, produced by the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, starring Rick Homan and Miyoko Sakatani with Louel Senores and Amber Glasgow, choreography by Wesley Cayabyab.

It’s always kind of funny what really makes a short play work and stand out. It’s usually this nearly impossible combination of big idea, simple but impactful execution, and charm. This piece, the capper of the last-ever Sheherezade Festival (PCSF’s annual short play collection) took the complex idea of aging and becoming obsolete and all the insecurity and fear attached to that, and reduced it to the very concrete but relatable fear of losing one’s sex appeal before one has lost the appetite for sex, without falling into the traps of being preachy, cutesy, smarmy, or vulgar. The result: an actually romantic, totally poignant tale of two grown ups having to learn how to be grown ups long after they thought they were done learning to be grown ups, complete with facing fears, getting over themselves, and forgiving one another’s human fallings- sparse pubic hair and all.

3. Best Show- “The Miraculous Journey Of Edward Tulane”, adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the book by Kate DiCamillo, directed by Doyle Ott, produced by the Bay Area Children’s Theatre, starring Terry Bamberger, Darek Burkowski, James Grady, Carlye Pollack

Okay, if you didn’t know it, some of the best theater being made in the Bay Area is consistently being made by Bay Area Children’s Theatre. Yes, it’s intended for kids and yes you will be looked at by amused/hyper-protective parents if you don’t show up without your own children, but the fact is, there’s some really excellent stuff happening here, high-quality entertainment being made and you’re probably missing it. Because it’s made for kids it’s also, in addition to being well done, often edifying and thought-provoking without hitting you over the head about it the way a great deal of theater for adults feels it needs to. The stories are also just unapologetically magical, because kids both believe in magic, and unlike most adults, feel no shame in admitting that or owning their need for it. No show, for me, better optimized this this year than “Edward Tulane”. Beautifully acted from top to bottom, gorgeously staged and directed as a kind of caravan theater meets medieval panto mash-up with songs, the tale of a toy that passes through many owners, becoming something uniquely valued by each, was FUCKING TEARING MY HEART OUT EVERY SECOND I WAS WATCHING IT. I barely held it together, my boyfriend cried continuously from twenty minutes in till the end, and we walked out wanting to make the world a kinder place. The restorative powers of forgiveness and the transformative aspect of service being subtley but unapologetically presented as the inevitable solutions to anger and vanity were so well nuanced that it was impossible to remain unmoved by a piece that comforted even as it kicked you in the face. And yeah, not all theater has to make you do that- but your chances of getting a Stuey are way higher if your theater does.

4. Best Ambitious Failure- “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known As Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrkia, Between the Years 1884-1915” by Jackie Sibblies-Drury, directed by Molly Aaronson-Gelb, produced by Shotgun Players in association with Just Theater, starring Rotimi Agbabiaka, Lucas Hatton, Kehinde Keyoejo, Patrick Kelly Jones, David Moore, and Megan Trout.

Okay, before anyone gets offended please understand: I love Ambitious Failures, and no it’s not a backhanded compliment. In many respects, while I love a perfect gem of a show and it’ll make me love the world and theater, an ambitious failure gets me excited and makes me think in a way that gems big or little often fail to do. Also, it’ll stick with me for a long time to come, resulting in multiple conversations, extra mileage in the idea mill, good debates, etc. “Well then,” you say, “is it really a failure?” I mean, I guess not- but yes, no, it didn’t work, at least for me. And like, this show totally didn’t work for me, I walked out feeling I had seen something that couldn’t actually decide what it was trying to do or say and collapsed in on itself like a whirlpool that was more interesting than engaging, but oh how much I admired the fearlessness and commitment of the script, the actors, the director, whoever it was who had to make that title work on a poster. I knew I had seen something important and real, even if I had failed to get much out of it beyond what I felt was obvious and a result of statement, not storytelling, but the parts that sang, sang so well that I could not be dismissive either. In many ways, I felt the play was epitomizing its own impossible conversation, that its hot messiness was a statement about how no one in the world seems to be qualified or articulate enough to truly communicate with anyone else in the world AND THAT’S WHY WE’LL NEVER HAVE NICE THINGS… but then that reading doesn’t satisfy me either and the play didn’t corroborate it and I was back at square one feeling like I was asking aesthetic questions instead of struggling with the plethora of social ones the play was ostensibly about. It’s frustrating… but intriguing, and it has kept me intrigued. This is the one show from this year I would see again, if I could, no caveats. And that deserves a Stuey.

5. Best SF Olympians Reading- “Tethys/Oceanus” by Marissa Skudlarek/Daniel Hirsch and Siyu Song, directed by Marissak Skudlarek/Sara Staley, starring Diana Brown, Alan Coyne, Theresa Miller, Jacinta Sutphin, Aaron Tworek, Kendra Webb, Steven Westdahl, Janice Wright

So, usually I do a “Best Reading” award but every year I’ve chosen something from Olympians (because it’s where readings go to ascend) so let’s just call a spade a spade and admit I’m really going to just pick the best Olympians reading from the past year. This year was a strong year for the festival, and there was a lot of good material, but one night shone above the rest in terms of great material + perfect performances + random magic, and that was a pair of one acts, “Tethys” by Marissa Skudlarek, who also directed, and “Oceanus” by Dan Hirsch and Siyu Song, directed by Sara Staley. Between the two pieces the evening was the perfect blend of somber intellect (Marissa’s) and giddy theatricality (Dan and Siyu’s). Marissa’s quiet and subtle piece about defining and obtaining security in a perilous world was beautifully echoed in Dan and Siyu’s mini-epic about what happens in the handful of moments during an global internet outage when all of our distractions vanish and we’re forced to listen to the sound of our own lives again. Both had a wicked humor tempered with compassion for the stories being told and the characters portrayed were done so by an excellent group of actors clearly relishing their roles. Like all “best nights” of the Olympians, I walked out of that one going, “This is what this festival can do- this is the kind of stuff that happens here!” which makes for such an easier time at the bar afterwards. And while the object of the festival is not to create a final product but to instead be the start of a journey, both these plays felt like they could be lifted and fully produced as was- which only makes me more excited to see where they will go.

6. Best Director- Ariel Craft, “The Pillowman”, The Breadbox

“Really? Ariel again?” you ask me. Um, well, what can I say- I’ll stop saying Ariel’s the best director in the Bay Area when she stops being the best director in the Bay Area. Or at least when she wins a TBA Award. No, but seriously, Ariel continues to win my admiration for a combination of reasons: she is not only exceptionally skilled and incredibly hard working, but she consistently chooses incredibly challenging work and sometimes does exceedingly risky things with it and sometimes those things fail but it never seems to stop her from trying again- and usually shooting even higher. Pillowman was not a failure but was, in fact, the best production of this play I could possibly imagine. Each individual part and performance was spot on- but the sum of the whole was brilliant and that is Ariel’s great strength. Her vision has a signature that is unmistakably hers, making her unquestionably an artist, and as she continues to grow it’s becoming more and more exciting to see her hallmarks across a variety of works. Best part: I don’t even really like this play all that much. But I loved this production of it.

7. Best Actor – Jason Wong (Creon, “Antigone”, at Cutting Ball)

Jason Wong has always been an interesting and very watchable actor, and having known him and worked with him before, I also know he’s a pretty nice guy, hard-working, risk-taking, and smart. Very smart. It sort of killed me when he didn’t try out for my production of M. Butterfly (though I would never trade the brilliance of Sean Fenton in that show FOR THE WORLD), but he’s forgiven now for having been the jewel in the crown of Cutting Ball’s production of Antigone. Though the heroine of the story is the center of the piece, Creon is the meat of the drama, his arc the one we follow, his lesson the one that must be learned, his soul the one that must be broken and, if you’re Creon is well-played, redeemed. Jason walked on stage chewing the scenery like a madman, spilling Creon’s pompous but phony self-love all over the place and then slowly, systematically, cracking the façade one doubt and disaster at a time until he was just bones and then just a pile of bones. Ending the play as a forlorn echo of himself that you wanted to protect in spite of everything, you realize that Antigone has triumphed and the tragedy has and always was Creon. Jason, with his remarkable ability to play wounded and outraged at the same time, took me from sinister to pathetic so forcibly but fluidly that like the proverbial frog in a cauldron, I almost didn’t feel the burn until I was suddenly, fataly, scalded.

8. Best Actress- Michelle Drexler (Kathy, “Company”, SF Playhouse)

One of the advantages of seeing a play many times (and I have seen Company many many times) is that you can see a variety of actors tackle a role and approach its pros and cons differently, with different levels of success. Most people who see Company will walk away having an opinion on the Robert, the Joanne, the Amy, maybe the Marta and April, and that’s usually kind of it. Part of the fun (and point) of the show is that most of the characters are kind of fun but flat stereotypes, 2-D impressions of people that Robert is ultimately sort of short-changing because it helps him feel like it’s okay to lack what they have (and he actually wants), but in can be tough for the actor handed the role of Larry or Susan or Paul to both honor the restraints of the piece and make an impression. Of all the parts in Company (except maybe Paul), I think Kathy is the most thankless, “the nice girl” archetype who epitomizes the “one that got away” but who we kind of let get away because, nice as she was… we weren’t really all that into her. The whole point of Kathy is that she wasn’t really all that interesting to Robert until THE SECOND before she walked out of his life… and then even then, he let her do it, because she wasn’t all that interesting. The problem with Kathy is that she is often played as if Robert’s view of her is who she actually is. The brilliance of Michelle Drexler’s performance as Kathy in the SF Playhouse production of Company and why she’s getting this year’s Best Actress Stuey, in a year of amazing performances by women, for a five minute scene? I’m not sure, to be honest, exactly what it was. A fierceness, perhaps? A depth of performance that conveyed her Kathy was MUCH MORE than Robert ever knew her to be, and that Kathy not only knew she was much more but knew Robert would never see it- and loved him anyway? An implication that she wasn’t a wall-flower going back home to settle for less but maybe even a Robert herself, maybe someone who had been mistaking waiting for living and was finally making a choice knowing that breaking your own heart is an awful but certain way to remember you have one? I don’t know. We’ll never know. The whole point of Kathy is that she’s a mystery we feel sort of sad about never solving. And it was nice to see someone finally play her that way.

9. Best Surprise- Teri Whipple (“Harbour”, NCTC, “Dead Dog’s Bone”, Faultline)

So, I’ve known Teri Whipple for a few years, she being a company member of Custom Made and a frequent actor in the SF Olympians, but this year I caught her in two very different shows at two very different companies playing… well, a kind of hippy-dippy mom in both plays, truth be told- but she did it really differently each time!- and perhaps more importantly, incredibly convincingly, displaying a versatility and charisma that elevated her performances past cliché and to something quite startling and previously unseen in her (at least by me). Teri has always been someone I’ve enjoyed watching, but I find myself excited when I find out I’m seeing something she’s in because I feel like I’m watching a performer really come into their own. I totally get that the “Mom” roles are rarely something a woman is excited about having cornered the market on, but if you keep playing interesting moms in unexpected ways- I can think of worse fates. Do I hope to see Teri in non-Mom roles? Absolutely. Which means, directors and writers- get to work.

10. Best Laugh- “It Wasn’t Meat!” by Carolyn Racine, choreography Liz Tenuto, directed by Paul Charney, produced by Killing My Lobster, starring Ron Chapman and Sam Bertken

Due to Killing My Lobster drastically upping their game in the last year (yeah, I said it- it’s like Night and Day, truth be told), I’ve actually made it to more of their shows than usual. I’m not huge into sketch, but when it’s well done, it’s a good time and since I saw so much I enjoyed this year I figured it was about time the Stueys included a sketch award of some kind. This year it goes to a little nugget of gold that landed in the happy Christmas Stocking that was this year’s holiday KML show at Z Space: “It Wasn’t Meat”, a parody of “It Wasn’t Me”, written by Carolyn Racine, directed by Paul Charney, choreographed by Liz Tenuto, and featuring Ron Chapman and Sam Bertken in the most hilarious send up of relationship enforced vegetarianism I’ve ever seen. To me, the best comedy is fun because it’s true, and if it’s painfully true that’s often even better. In the Bay Area, in particular, I think laughing at ourselves may be the only cure for our chronic case of smugness and what’s more true (and Bay Area) than taking a song about sexual infidelity (which so many people here, myself included, would go to great lengths to downplay as unimportant in today’s sexually progressive relationships) and revamping it as struggling to remain true to your partner’s tyrannical diet restrictions (which so many people here, not including me, would go to great lengths to tell you is far more important and not at all tyrannical… even though you are literally requiring someone to eat the way you do like they are your child). The perfect balance of delivery volleying between Ron Chapman’s cool confidence in denial and Sam Bertken’s anxious self-flaggelation for having “wrapped bacon around more bacon” turned a fun idea into a little bit of biting social commentary that got quite literal at the end when meat-starved Sam started biting his own mentor. Truly funny, truly arch, truly a reason to see even more KML in the coming year.

11. Best Designer- Brooke Jennings, Everything

Okay, so you may have noticed as I’m listing Best Play and such I’m failing to list all the designers and crew. Designers and crew- PLEASE FORGIVE ME! I’m trying to keep to a word limit I am already so way over, and the fact is, unless your show is all about the design, the mark of good design (in my opinion) is that it kind of fades into the background and becomes THE WORLD OF THE PLAY- outstanding in its seamlessness, natural, un-intrusive, and therefore… easy to fail to appreciate. Right now, the local designer who epitomizes this the most for me is costumer Brooke Jennings, who I have been lucky enough to work with several times, and whose work has been seen on a vast variety of Bay Area stages this past year. Often times, when looking at a show, I will be struck by how quietly, subtly, and yet perfectly everything on the actors is working together, creating a color and texture palate that tells a story without being the story, adhering to the world of the play while creating the world of the play, helping define everything from the time period to the climate, with stops on the personality and motives of the character along the way. Often I will then think, “Huh. Did Brooke design this show too?” And then I’ll look in the program and she did. What else is there to say?

12. Best Musical- “Heathers: The Musical” by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy, directed by Erik Scanlon, musical direction by Ben Prince, choreography by Alex Rodriguez, produced by Ray of Light Theatre, starring Laura Arthur, Teresa Attridge, Jordon Bridges, Melinda Campero, Samantha Rose Cardenas, Jessica Fisher, Paul Hovannes, James Mayagoitia, Zachariah Mohammed, Lizzie Moss, Abby Peterson, Jocelyn Pickett, Jessica Quarles, Nick Quintell, Andy Rotchadl, Mishca Stephens, Jon Toussaint.

So, I’m not a die-hard fan of Heathers: The Musical. I’m a die hard fan of the movie. The musical’s got some great songs and some fun moments, but I think it suffers from not deciding if it’s trying to be for the fans, or a work of art unto itself, and the truth is, it soft-pedals the darker, edgier aspects of the film, while loosing a great deal of the humor, and also coming off… vaguely homophobic and comparatively sexist? Yeah, no, I mean that, but I’m surprised by it because it’s a pretty entertaining and even profound show as long as you don’t really think about any of those things, and more pertinent to now, Ray of Light’s production was fantastic, probably the best thing I’ve seen them do yet, from the costumes (by Katie Dowse, shamelessly and amazingly recreating many of the looks from the film), to the tight direction, to the spot on impressions of the film cast and the startling moments of canonical departure intelligently woven between the bones throne to the audience- who clearly loved it. The humor and bite of the show was undeniably carried by Samantha Rose Cardenas, Lizzie Moss, and Jocelyn Pickett in the title roles, but the heart was provided by Jessica Quarles as Veronica and Laura Arthur as Martha Dunnstock, with Jordon Bridges bringing some much needed darkness as Jason Dean. The best song of the show, “Seventeen”, a kind of high school reject version of “Suddenly Seymour” (listen to it… hear it?), was stuck in my head for days afterward, infinitely more poignant when I watched Bridges and Quarles belt it at the Victoria than when I downloaded it on iTunes, as if they were channeling everything about the movie that made it my personal Bible in high school. The production as a whole deserved every single one of the 11 nominations it received at this year’s TBA Awards and seems to have been an all around hit with most audiences, doing what I think Ray of Light does best- making musicals not just accessible and entertaining, but an event that reminds people they’re also still a very relevant and multi-faceted art form.

13. Best Ensemble- “The Horses’ Ass and Friends” by Megan Cohen, directed by Ellery Schaar, produced by Repurposed Theatre, starring Danielle Gray, Ryan Hayes, Evan Johnson, Katharine Otis, Becky Raeta, Paul Rodrigues, Indiia Wilmott, Marlene Yarosh

Megan Cohen’s shows are always worth seeing- from the interesting failures, to the perfect little gems- but this particular show- directed by Ellery Scharr at the EXIT Theatre- was blessed by a truly excellent ensemble of players who managed to take an evening of individual experiments and weave them into a performative whole, the connective tissue of which was their own enthusiasm for the work and each other. Maybe it’s starting the show with a group dance party that bonds people, or just being a part of something you all believe in, but you can tell a good ensemble when you see them and it was obvious from the moment you walked in that the friends of the title were in the house and ready to show you what they had with everything they had. Watchable, charming, creative, smart, brave- Danielle, Ryan, Evan, Katharine, Becky, Paul, Indiia, and Marlene (okay, maybe a little extra gold star for Marlene)- are all excellent storytellers and were all tasked with the sometimes intimidating feat of telling a story written by the inimitable Meg Cohen. Each one rose to the occasion, each one succeeded in their own right, but best and brightest when together, as a troupe.

Well, there you go. To all my friends and frenemies in the Bay Area Theater Scene… it’s been a great year. Let’s you and me do it again sometime. Well… most of you.

One last bit. More than anything else that I’m aware of right now, it’s this: last year around this time I was dreading the new year. I was afraid it would be more of the same, and the truth is… it kind of was. But something happened over the course of the year, slowly at first, and then with gaining momentum: essentially, I found my way back to me. I started reading again. I started writing again. I made new connections and I let go of the ones that were turning sour and poisoning my self-esteem, or just taking up a lot of my time and not giving anything back in return. I had a lot of amazing conversations and I made some fantastic art. I broke a pattern of getting sick during my own production process, which had been going on for 2+ years. I got hit in the head… and I got back up and moved on. I stopped taking responsibility for things which aren’t mine to take responsibility for and started taking responsibility for something I rarely make room for: my own happiness. I remembered that even if I am a Sad King… I’m still a King. Surrounded by Kings. And Queens. Or whatever title you want to give yourself. You just be you, okay, whatever that is. I might not always like it, but we’ll probably figure out a way to get along in the long run. Meantime…

Five Collaborations With Old Friends But In Amazing New Ways

1) Marissa Skudlarek- Marissa Skudlarek has been the most consistent editorial force behind both Olympians and Theater Pub for years now, often acting as a second pair of eyes and a second opinion on everything from grammar to content and tone standards, but this year we did something we never thought we’d do before: sing harmony on a rock song together. Yup, our cameos as the Specialist and his Assistant in Guess Who? might not go down in rock history, but it’s definitely going down as a benchmark in our personal history. And Who Knows? (get it?) You might not have heard the last of us.

2) Megan Briggs and Allison Page- Megan Briggs is my muse and Allison Page has frequently been my leading lady, but this year they were also my co-producers on The Desk Set and let me tell you: you could not ask for a better team. Between Megan’s organizational skills and Allison’s marketing savvy, Desk Set was one of the best promoted, most tightly run ships I’ve worked on in a really long time, and the show’s tremendous success in spite of a myriad of hiccups (from the world’s biggest set to ever go into the EXIT Stage Left, to the longest props list of my directing career), not to mention the casts’ continued devotion to our Facebook chat thread, are a testimony to just what this dynamic duo can do. Let’s do it again (but better)!

3) Morgan Ludlow- Morgan has been an incredible advocate for my work over the years, producing four plays of mine, and letting me direct two of his. A few years ago he moved to Seattle, but he still returns to SF a few times a year to assist with local productions and this past autumn I had the honor of him stepping into directing shoes to bring the Seattle production of my play, Everybody Here Says Hello! to life. A truly excellent rendering, Morgan confessed (after I’d seen and liked the show) that he actually hadn’t directed in years and had only taken the risk because it was me.

4) Rob Ready– Rob has been in a number of things I’ve written, most notably playing the Llama in the Llamalogues for several years now, but this year Rob became our venue manager when TheaterPub resumed performances at his space starting in January. For all intents and purposes, this has made Rob our Executive Producer, and it’s been a truly rewarding experience. There are few people in the theater scene whose vision and love for the art exceed Rob’s, and it’s been a real honor having him as our patron saint and champion, even when we took some serious mis-steps this past year. Rob never stopped telling us we were doing a good job and because of that- we did.

5) Kim Saunders and David Brown– my choreographer and music director, respectively, on Grey Gardens: the Musical at Custom Made Theater. Never before had I shared the helm with two co-pilots, and while I consider myself a collaborative director, it’s one thing to be a gracious guy in charge, and another to be one of the three. It wasn’t always easy, but it was ultimately incredibly redwarding, and I learned a lot from my intrepid co-creators and would work with either, or both, again, in a heartbeat because damn our show was fantastic and it would not have been the same without each of us being the incredibly talented, passionate, invested and only occasionally egotistical maniacs we are… I mean… were.

Finally, finally, one last shout out- to a non-Bay Area person who took a huge risk by producing my not-quite finished, totally bizarre vampire melodrama, Gone Dark, in a sinking 19th century church in Chicago this past Halloween: Otherworld Theatre Company’s artistic director Tiffany Keane. She’s not local, so I can’t give her a Stuey, but I wish she was local so I could- and believe me, you also wish she was local. A gifted visionary, I was lucky enough to see my show rendered in a world so real you could sink your teeth into it… but my favorite moment will remain her innovative staging of a direct address monologue written entirely in French. Designed to scare off all but the most intrepid directors, Tiffany indulged me and made it work and watching her (and the remarkable actress in the role, Mary-Kate Arnold) spin that moment into gold, was the most breath-taking moment of a most breath-taking year.

All the best, everyone. And thank you.

Note: In an effort to get this posted before the end of the year, it was decided to post the draft version. Spelling, grammar, and minor aspects of content thus may be edited over the course of the next few days.

Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Re-Cap Of 2015 Part I

Today is the first of our three installments of 2015 recaps from each of our nine staff bloggers. Each has their own unique angle on this past year, so make sure you come back for the rest tomorrow and Wednesday. The Stueys will post on New Year’s Eve.

Top Five “Words of Wisdom” From Folks I’ve Interviewed by Barbara Jwanouskos

2015 marked the first year of shifting “The Real World – Theater Edition” to a mostly interview-based column mainly focused on generative theater artists, new work, and playwrights. As I reflected on the year, five “words of wisdom” moments sprung to mind that I would love to set as an intention moving forward into 2016. They resonated with me when I initially interviewed each of the people below and then again as I reviewed the interviews of the past year.

I think it’s best to let these words stand alone without any framing or reasons why I chose them. After all, when something resonates for you personally, it just does. There’s not much more to it than that. Hopefully, though, highlighting these five artists will also bring new ideas and wonder to the forefront of everyone reading too!
In no particular order, here are their words again:

1) Ariel Craft, director
“Don’t be afraid of not knowing, and don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. You can’t be expected to have all the answers in the beginning and, if you think that you do, be cautious of those answers.”

2) Donald E. Lacy, Jr., comedian, radio DJ, performer, writer, director, and community leader
“For other writers and artists I can’t tell them what to write or how they should address social ills, but the first advice I would give is to say you have to feel passionately about what you are writing about, whatever that may be. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, but for me, I have to care. Especially as it relates to social issues and or injustices. I despise injustice. I despise racism, so having such strong feelings about those issues, it makes it easy for me to tap into what I want to say about those particular issues. But for me, I like to support my point of view with facts.”

3) Alan Olejniczak, playwright, librettist
“You must also really love the subject of your play as it may take years to develop.”

4) Savannah Reich, playwright, performer, and producer
“For me the simplest way to get your play produced is to do it yourself. It is only very recently that other people have wanted to produce my plays, and that is a new and exciting thing, but it’s important to me to always know that I can make my own work, and that I never need to get picked out of the pile or get the grant or win the contest to make my art.”

5) Marisela Treviño Orta, playwright
“I make a point to wait until I’ve gotten a play into several drafts before sharing the script with anyone. I need that time to really get to know what the story so that when people have notes for me I’m able to determine if those notes help me realize the narrative I’m trying to write or if they are going in another direction.”

The 5 Most Surprising Things that Happened to Me This Year by Charles Lewis III

I wouldn’t call 2015 my favorite year, but it was an interesting one theatrically. Some of it was by design, some of it was happenstance, but all of it taught me something. With all the moments I now recall, here are five that came out of left-field.

1) I sang. I’ve auditioned for so many musicals over the years that I’d long-since stopped holding my breath about actually being cast in one, let alone two in one year (one of which also required me to dance). But between appearing in a brand new musical and singing “Pinball Wizard” at the top of my lungs, I finally got over a stage-based fear that’s been with me since high school.

2) I saw the Red Planet. I was part of the writers’ pool for this year’s two rep shows by Wily West Productions. It was my first time being part of a group, this one led by Jennifer Roberts. One of the two scripts, Zero Hour: The Mars Experiment, had a performance attended by actual candidates of the Mars One project and got a reading at the Otherworld Theatre in Chicago.

3) I learned to like costumes. Not that I ever hated them (although I’ve worn a few horrendous ones in my time), I just didn’t ever want to be the one making the decisions about them. But a director kinda has to make those decisions and I wound up directing a lot this year. To my pleasant surprise, I wound up liking the things my actors wore: I created a cartoonish burger-place cap for On the Spot; I got my Olympians cast to look like a pack of scented markers; and as for Texting

4) I made a skimpy man-thong into a prop. A proud moment for me. Nothing I put on my resume will ever top it. Speaking of which…

5) I gave up my reluctance in calling myself a director. I only acted in two projects, which would normally lead me to calling this a slow year. But I felt envigorated after doing them. This occurred in the same year that I found myself at the proverbial “helm” of so many projects that I finally felt confident enough to put “Director” on my theatrical CV and told people to consider me for projects – which they have.

Oh yeah – I also ran into Colin Firth on the streets of San Francisco, but no one wants to hear about that, do they?

The Top Five Venues of 2015 by Anthony Miller

Hey you guys, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, when my Top 5 format becomes everyone’s format. It’s much like the 90’s, when what I already wore became fashionable. At the beginning of the year I made 2 resolutions, 1) Read The Great Gatsby and 2) Leave the house more often. As we come to the end of the year, only one of those really worked out. As it stands, I have read 17 pages of The Great Gatsby, it took all of 2014 just to finish the introduction. So we’ll table this one again. However, I did manage to get out more, consequently I got to see a lot of different shows in a whole bunch of places. So let’s look at my five favorite venues of 2015.

1) Pianofight
Wasn’t this everyone’s favorite venue of 2015? I’m not the first person to say it, but what Rob Ready and everyone at Pianofight has accomplished is amazing. It’s always fun to be there, the bar is great, the fried chicken sandwiches are the best, and it’s provided a clubhouse of sorts for SF theatre. With three stages, it’s hosting shows from every facet of the Bay Area performing arts scene. All the mini-scenes in the bay are getting together in one place and it’s resulting in more shows and bigger audiences. Whether I’m seeing a show or producing a show there, it’s always fun. I see a huge 2016 for this place, and they deserve it.

2) The Curran
While the 100 year-old Curran Theater is going under renovations, it has been hosting an exciting new series of plays called Curran: Under Construction. I was lucky enough to see a lot of these this year, and because I knew most of the house staff, I got to see not only a lot of cool theatre; I got to explore the place like crazy. By putting the audience on stage with the show, it turns the historic Curran stage into an intimate 150 seat venue that just happens to overlook a 1600 seat theatre and a giant chandelier. The sheer variety of shows I saw was vast There were immersive theater pieces like The Object Lesson, one man tributes to Lenny Bruce, and the Theatre Rock awesomeness of Ghost Quartet and Stew’s Notes of A Native Song. Add that to hanging out on a stage that has hosted hundreds of theatre legends, exploring their basement, fly rails and sneaking into a box seat and drinking a beer, and it makes for an awesome experience every time. And entering through the star door is pretty fun; It’s a really nice stage door.

3) Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater
For purely sentimental reasons, The ol’ Roda Theater makes my list. After roughly 3 years of House Managing for them, I left for greener pastures. Sure, the Roda can be aptly described much like Ferris Beuller described Cameron’s house; “It’s like a museum it’s very beautiful and very cold, and you not allowed to touch anything”. But I did have a lot of fun there. My co-workers were great, and as nerdy as it sounds, there is something absolutely thrilling about getting 600 people seated and giving the house away on time. Not to mention, I saw Tartuffe there, which was easily my favorite show of 2015.

4) The Grand Lake Theater
OK, this is a movie theater, but it is noteworthy. The historic Grand Lake Theater in Oakland is my favorite movie theater in the world. I saw Star Wars Episode 7 in classic 2 projector 3D there and whenever I can see a movie here, I do. It’s a beautiful old fashioned theater that still raises a curtain when the movie starts; an organist plays before the show, and it’s got a pretty ceiling. Not to mention the fiercely liberal views that are often displayed on the marquee. Let me be clear, this is best movie theater in the Bay Area. They’re currently hosting the “Roadshow” Version of The Hateful Eight in glorious 70mm, You’re doing it no justice by seeing it at the Kabuki AMC, Go to Oakland, see a movie there. You won’t be sorry

5) The EXIT
I just can’t quit you EXIT Theater, I love you and your pee-pee smelling sidewalk. I don’t see a world where I don’t see shows here. It still remains a place where independent theatre artists can find a home or just get started. It’s the home of SF Fringe, The Olympians Festival, DivaFest and everybody’s first show in San Francisco. With great new venues like Pianofight and the Strand opening up, the Exit is still the Exit, the CBGB’s of SF Indie Theater.

Charles Lewis is an actor and a director and a writer. Barbara Jwanouskos is a playwright. Anthony R. Miller is writer and producer, he’s a got a very busy 2016 coming up, keep up with it at http://www.awesometheatre.org.

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – A Pre-Post-Mortem

Charles Lewis III, getting a head start on the recap.

 “La Serenata” by George Yepes

“La Serenata” by George Yepes

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
– JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

It’s safe to say that death is not everyone’s favorite subject. It’s one thing to think of endings – fads end, stories end, meals end – but quite another to actually put it in terms of death. Death means that you end. All of your opinions fads, stories, and meals will merely vanish as your consciousness slips away into a void of permanent darkness.

Okay… now that I’ve started off on such a cheery note, I should probably tell you that I don’t intend for this to be a downer; if you want that, there’s no shortage of it in the news (particularly as it relates to recent deaths). In fact, I should say that I get it and I empathize: the sudden appearance of death (at least if it’s not your own) can be a rude awakening from the complacency of life. It’s the one thing in life about which we aren’t entirely certain; or maybe we are certain and just like the fairy tale as a way of thinking that it could only get better from here. These questions wake me up at night, too.

It’s only natural that these questions would come up in the midst of a theatre festival based on a mythology with no shortage of prominent figures who tried to cheat death. The twist is that they often found that eternal could be much worse than life ending (eternal life without eternal youth; permanently pushing a boulder up a hill; etc.). Is the end of life really more terrifying than the idea of an unchanged life that never ends?

During the opening speeches for this year’s festival, founder Stuart Bousel has frequently mentioned something that a few of us have known for some time: that the SF Olympians Festival is a 12-year experiment, making this (its sixth year) the halfway point. Last night’s shark-themed “Waterlogue” was from the point of view of someone who realizes that they’re dying. It was a funny piece, but a sobering reminder that this festival we all love will one day end, as all things do.

The thing to remember is that art doesn’t die. Artists die, artwork can be destroyed, but the affect that a work of art can have is something that can’t be measured so tangibly. What’s more, advances in technology have made it easier to both preserve art for future generations and restore works thought lost forever. For the Olympians Fest, many of the readings are recorded and photographed (I’ve often done the latter from an awkward front row seat), letting the playwrights, actors, and even those who weren’t there experience the readings as often as they’d like.

But let’s not forget the point of the festival itself. As Stuart has frequently stated: the festival is meant to be part of the development process of the, not the end. All playwrights retain full ownership of their scripts and are allowed to alter and submit them as they see fit. Productions such as Juno en Victoria, Pleiades, You’re Going to Bleed, and the upcoming The Horse’s Ass and Friends! all started as Olympians readings with their writers in the audience nervously listening to the reactions of the audience around them. From there, each writer decided “I would love to see this on its feet” and put the gears in motion to make it happen. The festival is part of the trip, it’s not the destination.

I wrote earlier this year how I wasn’t all that fond of my Year 3 script about Atlas – Do a Good Turn Daily – until the years-later feedback of others made me reconsider it. I haven’t heard a lot of feedback about this year’s Poseidon script, The Adventures of Neptune: In Color!, but the audience reaction was pretty good from where I sat. Sure, as writer/director I can nitpick 1,001 things I’d change, but that script is something I’m proud of. So proud, in fact, that I’ve resolved to expand it from a one-act to a full-length. I can’t say for certain what future these scripts will have, but it’s been a trip to bring them this far. They didn’t die at the festival.

Since this is officially the festival’s mid-life, perhaps a contemplation of the end is appropriate. Not in the morbid “Oh God, I’m gonna die, but I never went to Bora Bora!” way, but in the author-of-a-great-series-starts-pondering-the-perfect-resolutions-for-his/her-characters-so-the-story-can-end-correctly-and-not-go-on-indefinitely way. You see it coming and you prepare for the single best send-off ever. Death will certainly play an important role in next year’s festival, “Harvest of Mysteries”. In addition to plays about such Greek myth staples as Hades and Tartarus, Year 7 will also shake things up by including figures from Egyptian mythology – and those mofos were all about death!

This is probably the end of the “Of Olympic Proportions” feature on this site. It’s possible that it could pop up again and you can bet that ‘Pub writers will continue to talk about the Olympians Fest, but as I said in my first entry: I saw this as a one-year sporadically-scheduled look at one of the most popular theatre festivals on the West Coast. Having been with it since the beginning, it was my pleasure to give people a resource into what goes into said festival, from the moment a writer is accepted to the post-show drinks. Hopefully, most of the questions people have had can now be answered by clicking the “SF Olympians”, “San Francisco Olympians Festival”, and “Of Olympic Proportions” tags below.

And hey, don’t forget that this is not the end! Not for the festival (which still has six exciting years ahead of it), not for my participation in it (I’ll be writing the script for the Opening Night party), or even for this year’s festival. It continues tonight, tomorrow night, and concludes on Saturday. So come on down and raise a glass to the Wine Dark Sea, and enjoy every sip as if it were your last!

Charles Lewis III finds it hilarious that he started this feature thinking he’d never be part of the festival again. As usual, tix and info can be found as www.SFOlympians.com.

In For a Penny: Three the Hard Way

Charles Lewis listens to his other self. Both of them

King Ghidorah

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
— Matthew 6:34, King James Version

I hadn’t planned on writing about anything too serious for today’s entry. I’d planned to just do another “Of Olympic Proportions” piece about how the festival finally started last night; how much fun I’d had at the Opening Night party; how stoked I am about my script being read THIS SATURDAY, YOU GUYS; how my cast will be dressed like a box of Crayola crayons-turned-sentient-attractive-people; and how much I’ve been looking forward to this all year.

Then… reality set in. And, as reality often does, it sucked. As a San Francisco native with a bit of an obsession with the Freudian model of the human psyche, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that my Id and Super-Ego had a field day with the election results.

It started with my Id all excited for the election, then my Super-Ego pointing out that I’m currently a resident of Daly City.

Id reads the election results and wants to burn something; Super-Ego points out that as an SF native he shouldn’t, because that sort of thing (from post-game “victory vandalism” to the shooting that ended Hallowe’en in The Castro) is done by people who are not from our city.

Id is angry that many of those same out-of-towners-made-residents who voted for this shit; Super-Ego looks over the numbers of long-time residents and natives who inexplicably didn’t vote at all.

Id says that he better not find out his techie friends voted for this turnout; Super-Ego points out that the election process is private for a reason.

Id feels angry at all the people who are flooding his FB wall with posts saying “RIP, SF. Time to move to Oakland/Alameda/Portland/Chicago/NY/Austin/Pittsburgh/London/Narnia/Zamunda”; Super-Ego looks over the housing stats of each of those places and sees that it would be just trading one problem for a new one in a different geographical area.

Id is angry at friends who actually did move; Super-Ego points out that it’s futile to fault people he cares about going where they have the best opportunities to thrive.

Id is angry to hear that in addition to election woes, a friend of his in the tech industry just lost his job; Super-Ego suggests that someone with this friend’s vast experience (more than 15 years) could bounce back.

Id wants to use all of his money to stay and fight for his hometown; Super-Ego mentions that he has very little money, what with lacking a full-time job.

Id is pissed that he hasn’t been hired for full-time jobs for which he’s overqualified, especially after getting pretty damn far in the interview processes; Super-Ego points out that job interviews – like auditions – only give you control over the words coming out of your mouth and the ones on your resume. The rest is up to the folks behind the desk.

Id hates the new character one-shot posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Super-Ego also finds them aesthetically horrendous.

Id is pissed that he’s missed the latest episodes of his favorite shows, as well as the premiere of Ash vs. Evil Dead; Super-Ego says that work (and lots of it for someone lacking a full-time job) has to come before recreation.

Id is pissed that the Twin Peaks reboot has been pushed back to 2017, and that the Log Lady died recently; Super-Ego points out that Lynch’s negotiations last were would inevitably stall the show.

Id and Super-Ego continue to use their dissatisfaction with the election to point out all the flaws in the
entire world.

As these two go at it, “Regular” Ego’s eyes are glued to the screen of his laptop. He reads a really inspiring write-up of the election on VanishingSF’s FB wall; he reads a special offer via PM regarding next year’s Olympians Fest; he reads an offer for a paid on-camera role for this Thursday (today); he begins receiving photos of clothing options from the cast of this Saturday’s Olympians reading; he hears a knock at the front door and answers it to find his adorable raffle prize(s) for said reading delivered by UPS; he thinks of how after the festival he’ll turn this one-act into a full-length after the festival; he looks through monologues for an upcoming audition for a company with which he likes working; he watches the kick-ass trailer for Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq; he reads about The Orbit Room re-opening; he reads about the upcoming Star Trek tv show.

In short, he thinks of a few of his favorite things, and then he doesn’t feel so bad. This three-headed beast heads out the door to go jogging on a lovely sunny day.

Super-Ego points out that the state desperately needs rain.

To see the colorful readings of Charles and every other Olympians participant, please purchase tickets at www.SFOlympians.com

In For a Penny: Of Olympic Proportions – My Twitter-fied Script

Silverstein - The Missing Piece

“Right side and with intensity, okay?”
“Is that everything? It seemed like he said quite a bit more than that.”
– Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

There’s no way I’ll be able to top yesterday’s anecdote about Meryl Streep dreams, but I empathize with the plight of my fellow ‘Pub columnist. As you read these words, I’m mere hours away from the first rehearsal for my Poseidon-based script, The Adventures of Neptune: In Color! It’s one of the few things I’ve written for which I’ve felt genuine optimism once it was done. And I think that’s earned, considering I spent several marathon sessions over the past five days trying to edit the damn thing.

My play was selected to be a one-act, which I’ve written for the festival before and had every confidence I could do so again. Then I started researching. A lot. I never stopped researching, but once I began putting words into these characters’ mouths, I couldn’t make them shut up. To further complicate matters, the post-audition casting process resulted in me getting a truly kick-ass roster of Bay Area actors. So naturally I wanted to write material specifically for each of them.

The result could easily be the length of Once Upon a Time in America, but all I need is a “GoodFeathers” sketch. Realizing that my way-too-long story would require a bit of pruning, I found inspiration in a rather unlikely source: Twitter.

I remember years back when the late Roger Ebert joined Twitter. In fact, I remember years before when he specifically said he would NEVER join Twitter. He already had his regular long-form blog and implied that Twitter’s truncated form made real discourse all but impossible. He wasn’t entirely wrong: at its worst, Twitter is the medium for the sort of oversimplified opinions and patronizing platitudes formerly reserved for bumper stickers, fortune cookies, and novelty t-shirts.

When he finally joined in 2009, he would say months later, “Twitter for me performs the function of a running conversation. For someone who cannot speak, it allows a way to unload my zingers and one-liners.” That stuck with me. I forget what year I joined Twitter, but there was a period of months – maybe even a full year – where I just forgot about it and didn’t use it. (It’s this non-desire to “keep up with the Joneses” that has kept me from joining Instagram, Snapchat, Tinder, etc.) But since I was a teenager, I’ve always held an appreciation for the democratic way the internet gives everyone a voice, even those with which I do not agree. If I was going to be on Twitter, I’d try to follow Ebert’s example and try to put some thought into what I typed. Short thoughts, but thoughts nonetheless.

This has proven an invaluable practice when editing scripts. Not every line needs to be “The Aristocrats,” some can just be dirty limericks on bathroom walls. Still, my biggest fear is that when the edited version is read aloud it makes no sense, but I can always say I planned it like that.

Nottingham babbling

It takes me longer than others to finish a script because I usually write on a typewriter. I bought on a whim in college in 2000 and have gotten great mileage out of it since. Obviously it has a few disadvantages – no SpellCheck, errors have to be corrected manually, people in other rooms complain of the noise – but I feel those pale in comparison to the advantages I’ve gained from it – I’ve become a better speller, I predict and stop grammatical errors, and when I don’t hear the noise, then I know I’m not writing when I should be. I also can’t just take out a single line or page at my whim, because typed pages don’t self-edit. If I want to change something, you’ll likely have to change the entire script.

I’m reminded of a quote by John Milius, a writer I’ve always admired. In a 2003 interview, when asked about writing new drafts, he said that he “look[s] at a script like a gunstock [..] it has to be shaped right, and the finish has to be right, and you have to bring out all the qualities that are in the wood.” I agree with that. When I rewrite, I don’t think of it as replacing one LEGO piece with another, I think of it as playing Jenga or moving one ace without bringing down the entire house of cards.

I won’t know until this evening whether or not I’ve succeeded, and I’ll still have one more rehearsal and an actual reading left. For now, I’ll just finish hole-punching these 280 FedEx-copied pages whilst all you good people do the right thing and blow up the hashtag #SFOlympians6.

Charles Lewis III - Poseidon - typewriter

Charles Lewis III deprived himself of food and sleep to edit his script, so you should all come see it on Saturday – Nov. 7. To pre-order tickets and find out more info, please visit www.SFOlympians.com

Theater Around The Bay: The Audition and Casting Process (Stuart Bousel, Lana Russell)

Peter Hsieh brings us Part One of a two part interview series taking a director’s eye view of the casting and audition process.

Auditions. Casting. Been there, done that.

Auditions. Casting. Been there, done that.

Before I started seriously writing plays, I was an actor and the thing that baffled me the most, gave me the most palpitations were auditions. Part of what made me so nervous about them was that I didn’t really grow up doing theater and didn’t really have any friends in theater or any connections within a theater community. I also hadn’t the slightest idea about what the casting process was like from the director’s and producer’s stand point and in my ignorance and insecurity, attributed being successfully cast as to having connections, having an impressive resume stretching back twelve years to your stage debut as one of the kids in Children of Eden to your critically acclaimed performance as Romeo in last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet, or being incredibly talented/having years of training. A few years later I found myself on the other side of the table, as a locally produced, playwright/director with whom people saw potential in and as a result got to take part in auditions and casting for some of my plays and became more familiar with this process that years ago was such a terrifying mystery to me.

Nowadays I rarely take part in auditions but I still have great respect for all the work that goes into auditions and castings from both sides of the table . As I’m writing this article, a lot of plays are being cast or already have been cast, from college productions (a lot of the UC’s have just had theirs cast I believe), to a few upcoming festivals like the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and I find myself thinking back to a younger version of myself worrying about auditions and how much better it would have been if I knew more about the process or if I had a few director friends I could talk to. In this article I talk to two very awesome directors, who go to auditions and are involved in the casting process, directors that I look up to and whose work I deeply admire: Stuart Bousel, the Director of New Work Development at Custom Made Theatre Company, the Executive Director of San Francisco Theater Pub, and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, really, a man who needs no introduction in these parts (and on this blog), and who you’ve (if you do theater in San Francisco) probably auditioned for and my friend Lana Russell, a New York based freelance director and the artistic director of Story People Theater Group, whom I met (and auditioned in front of) at UC Irvine where we both matriculated. In addition to talking about the audition and casting process, Stuart and Lana, both involved in producing new works, also addresses what it’s like to work on new plays and how what it is like to cast a new play.

So to the actor who got nervous before their audition, or are thinking about auditioning, to anyone who has ever wondered about the casting process and what transpires after you leave that stage (or room, or wherever your audition takes place), to myself years back when I was auditioning for the first time as a college freshmen who decided to take a shot at theater, this one is for you.

Tell us about your experience with new works. What do you enjoy about them? Why is it important to support that avenue of theatre?

Bousel: I’m a playwright, so I create new work, so of course I think it’s important, but as a director and as an audience member I’m just really into stories- old ones, and new, so an interest in new work development stems from a desire to constantly be creating and listening to, seeing, new stories. Surprise is, to me, one of the key elements of good theater- revelation too- and while I think both of those things can be present in older works, obviously the potential is greater in new work, and it’s important to support new work for the same reasons it’s important to support learning new things or making new friends: it helps us grow as human beings, and we should never stop growing.

Lana Russell. Her workshop production of Gibraltar at UCI was one of the best plays I saw there. I saw A LOT of good plays there.

Lana Russell. Her workshop production of Gibraltar at UCI was one of the best plays I saw there. I saw A LOT of good plays there.

Russell: For me, there is nothing more exciting than getting to be a part of telling a story that has never been told in exactly that way ever before. A playwright creates this raw, beautiful, terrifying thing that has the power and potential to develop into a story so full of life it cannot help but be told. When a new work gets dropped into your hands as a director I truly believe that no matter what is on the page, there is this thrilling possibility of what it could become. Offering support to the playwright in early stages by giving them the space to hear their work aloud, in front of a supportive and inquisitive audience is immensely important. Plays aren’t written to sit in twenty drafts on a google drive, they are being written for people to hear, see, react to and empathize with.

While I’ve always had a passion for new plays, the work really began after moving to New York in 2010. I had the opportunity and great pleasure to work for Primary Stages as their literary assistant for almost three years. So in addition to building a freelance directing career I was reading a bajillion scripts, seeing readings all over the city and assisting in Primary Stages Dorothy Strelsin New American writers group. A literary position was a great fit for me and it allowed me to learn about the wealth of writers constantly putting their work out there in New York and regionally. The writer’s group would meet once a week while the playwrights (all RIDICULOUSLY AMAZING writers) brought in new pages of the play they were working on which would then have a reading at the end of the term. Primary Stages offers such a generous home to their writers and an opportunity for audiences to come and see a work that is brand spanking new. I offered dramaturgical advice and hopefully emotional support in addition to administrative tasks for the group, their reading series and our annual writers retreat in Bennington College. I also have held literary internships and producing fellowships at LCT3 at Lincoln Center and Naked Angels, both companies dedicated to the development and production of new and exciting works.

What are some of the challenges of casting new works, especially for a festival or evening of multiple plays?

Russell: The festival especially had its challenges because instead of producing one new play, there were seven each with its own writer, director and cast. For me, casting for a new play is actually easier than one that has a range of previous productions. It can be more difficult because no previous type has been set for who plays this role but that is what I find most creatively stimulating. For an actor this is a huge opportunity to lend your voice and help create the persona of a brand new character. Readings are also great opportunities to try certain casting ideas and actors out. It sounds silly to say but scheduling is another major challenge. Since so many readings of new plays are unpaid and based on the generous volunteering of time from the actors, casting can get down to the wire and it becomes a game of commitments and getting people in the right place at the right time. Actors, the quicker you respond to an email, the quicker we can cast you.

Stuart Bousel. I owe at least three of my plays being produced to him. For Reals.

Stuart Bousel. I owe at least three of my plays being produced to him. For Reals.

Bousel: The big challenge with casting new work is that many actors are really no different from producers, directors, or audiences, and are just partial to what is familiar, perhaps even slightly distrusting of new work. Ask an actor what roles they want to play and they all have a list, which is understandable, they’ve grown up reading and seeing shows they want to be a part of themselves, but I wish I heard more actors say, “A role that hasn’t been written yet” or “A role I don’t know”. The right actors get super excited when they come across something they haven’t gotten to do before and nobody else has either, and they recognize it as the opportunity it is: to really be part of the creation of that character, because they absolutely will be, all roles are influenced by the actor who originates them. But it definitely takes a creative, smart actor who is willing to do that, and many artists, like many audiences, play it safe when push comes to shove, or can just have a hard time seeing how an opportunity they didn’t anticipate is still an opportunity.

There are a lot of people for and against pre-casting. There are a lot of practical reasons it is done (i.e. Writer/ Director had a specific actor in mind), but a lot of people bring up the arguments against it as well. What are your thoughts on pre-casting, and as producer/directors what would you say to Directors and actors in regards to this?

Bousel: I think it really depends on the role and the production. As a playwright, I have written roles for certain actors and I’ve never regretted that. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s almost always an interesting result. That said, all roles should be able to be played by someone other than the person they were originally written for (assuming they were) so obviously pre-casting is going to postpone that test at least until a second production. Generally speaking, I think it’s okay though for a director to go into a production with some sense of what they want, so long as they remain open to having their mind changed. And so long as they haven’t promised a role to an actor ahead of time. Telling someone they have a role and then taking it away for purely “I found someone I like more” reasons is not at all classy and yes, I’ve done it, and so I’m speaking from experience when I say you just end up feeling like a giant douche bag when you do that- and it’s cause you are. Go into auditions with all the ideas in the world- but save the promises until you’re ready to make a real offer.

Russell: I don’t think there is a director out there (especially one who is also producing) who when planning to do a play doesn’t have some ideas in their head about who could play at least the major roles. In larger institutions, especially on Broadway, star names are many times attached first before the choosing of the actual play, or the play is only produced if there can be at least 1-2 “names” on board. I don’t love this but sadly it is necessary to help with financial instability. Most directors I know have a circle of actors in the back of their minds but I at least always ask other trusted director colleges for recommendations. Sometimes I do an “invited audition” based on recommendations only when something needs to be cast quickly. Yet, the hopeful artist in me also believes in the possibility of finding that right person amidst the crowd when least expecting it. The best thing actors can do to embrace the amount of pre-casting that does occur is to work with and get your name involved with as any circles of art makers as possible. Make it so that when considering a play, your work and reputation for the caliber of work that you do is something producers and directors cannot ignore. More often than not I cast someone based on recommendation or a show I saw them in as opposed to just a cold audition. Also, a good website with a range of material is SO helpful.

What are some things actors do that make you want to cast them, conversely what are some of the things they do that make you not want to cast them?

Russell: The best thing an actor can do is make a choice. Any choice. A bold choice. A choice that you have thought deeply about. This means really knowing the play you have pulled the audition piece from. Also, I love actors who are able to show me who they are in an audition. It sounds so cliché but be yourself, have fun, and have pride and confidence in who you are. The people behind the casting table (at least in my opinion) are not “above you” they aren’t to be feared or make you feel less than. The casting director, director, producer etc. need someone to fill a role the same way that you need a gig. Lastly, be flexible. Be open. And be kind to everyone involved in any creative process. That is what I look for. I don’t want to cast any actor with an ego, someone who is inflexible and cannot play or make adjustments, and as I said before someone who doesn’t make a passionate choice in one direction even if it is the “wrong” direction.

Bousel: I like working with smart people who have a solid sense of who they are, know their boundaries, and are able to politely communicate them, but are also willing to take risks, try something before they shoot it down, collaborate, and contribute to the conversation while we craft a piece together. They need to know we’re in it together- and that “we” means them too. Actors who turn me off are ones who only want to go by the book, so to speak, and say “no” instead of “okay, let’s try it and see”. Actors who are not team players, who think they are above anything or anyone involved in my production, from their fellow actors to the box office people, are also not welcome on my shows. They are always, always, always backstage poison and the damage they cause is never worth whatever talent they possess. I will take a solid, if not “incredible” actor who is friendly, on time, and game, over an exquisite asshole any day. Love your ensemble, not your diva, is my slogan.

Cate Blanchett is smart and makes bold choices. I’m pretty sure of that.

Cate Blanchett is smart and makes bold choices. I’m pretty sure of that.

Monologue you’d be okay never hearing again.

Bousel: None, really, but advice I’d give after seeing hundreds of auditions: never do a song from RENT or TICK TICK BOOM, and never do a monologue where your character is crazy, ranting, or telling a story that isn’t about them.

Russell: Any monologue that is vastly age inappropriate, or any monologue where you play an actor doing a play or even worse a monologue about an audition. Also, I’d love to put a ban to monologue books. Those speeches get overused and as an actor it helps you so much to have an entire play as a tool to understanding your character. A monologue on its own can be way too general.

Some higher power has made you Supreme Overlord of Theatre. Cast your favorite play with any cast you want. I’d do Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” starring Jessica Chastain as May, Sam Rockwell as Eddie, and Jeff Bridges as the Old Man.

Russell: Peter, do you know Sam Rockwell is in Fool for Love on Broadway right now! Your wish is the theater’s command. OH MAN this is tough. I would have to cross time periods and eras. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, has been and always will be my favorite play. I would keep Marlon Brando as Stanley, though in when she was age appropriate Meryl Streep, (great minds think alike) Jessica Chastain as Stella and again if we could jump to times in their life when they were age appropriate I’ve always wanted a young Robin Williams to take on Mitch.

OMG! My wish is theater’s command. Swag.

OMG! My wish is theater’s command. Swag.

Bousel: I can’t really answer this because I’m about to direct my favorite play, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, for the first time in 2016, and I’ve just cast it and I love and am really excited about my cast. So… there you go. I suppose if we’re just playing the Hollywood game, I would really love to see Cate Blanchette and Tilda Swinton cast as rival sister queens in a fantasy epic. I don’t know why this hasn’t happened yet.

Lana, you have a new theater group through which you recently produced a festival of new plays, tell us about it.

RUSSELL: I have a theater company (in development) called Story People Theatre Group. Story People Theatre Group seeks to create bold, imaginative art inspired by the diverse stories of the people around us. We are focused on documenting stories and forming a conversation between an artist and their community. Story People produces the summer Rooftop Readings program where new plays are presented in outdoor spaces (if it’s in Brooklyn where we are located chances are the space is a roof) and following the reading, discussion and intermingle of artists conversation wine and snacks takes place. Additionally, this year we held our first annual “Strangers” New works festival of short plays. This was an open submission process where writers were given the prompt “Strangers”. All seven pieces were presented with simple staging or in a more traditional reading format for the first time in front of enthusiastic audiences. I was thrilled by the range of diverse and unique voices we produced (some of which I directed) and the hope is that these plays continue to have further lives.

Supreme Overlord of Theatre.

Supreme Overlord of Theatre.

The really exciting thing about this particular festival is that the plays are incredibly new, performed or read for the first time in front of an audience and openly embrace that they are in the first stage of a developmental process. There is no pressure for perfection, just an opportunity to listen, craft, think and question. Story People will continue its programming next summer 2016 with a soon to be announced full length play, devising workshop and the usual summer programming of Rooftop Readings and hopefully another “Strangers” style festival. Story People is always in search of new collaborators so if you consider yourself an artist or storyteller of any kind please get in touch!

Sadly a website is in development and is not up yet so please get a hold of us at storypeopletheatregroup@gmail.com or Lana at lanarosalind@gmail.com.

Tune in Next Week for Part Two where I ask the same questions to more awesome directors/producers.

Stuart Bousel is the Director of New Work Development at Custom Made Theatre Company, the Executive Director of San Francisco Theater Pub, and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which opens on November 5th this year (www.sfolympians.com). He is also a playwright, and his play Pastorella is currently nominated for OUTSTANDING WORLD PREMIERE at this year’s TBA Awards, while his play Gone Dark is set to open at Otherworld Theatre Company in Chicago on Halloween.

Lana Russell is a New York based freelance director and the artistic director of Story People Theater Group. Selected credits include: The Offer by Bella Poynton (Sam French OOB Festival Finalist) Cloud Tectonics by Jose Rivera, (New School for Drama), The Coming World by Christopher Shinn (Under St. Marks), Pizza Man by Darlene Craviotto (Red Room Theater) and Gibraltar by Octavio Solis (Nixon Theater). Assistant directing: The Model Apartment and Poor Behavior (Evan Cabnet, Primary Stages.) Lana is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and pursuing an MFA in Directing at The New School for Drama, 2017.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, California. Recent credits include his play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival and T. Schreiber Studio, Argus at the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and Maybe at Brooklyn College as part of GI60 2015. Additionally, his works have been produced and developed by Hollywood Fringe Festival, Piney Fork Press, Douglas Morrisson Theatre, NYU Performing Arts Club, Nylon Fusion Collective, Actor’s Company, Brooklyn College, North Park Playwright’s Festival, Viaduct Theatre, SPROUT, San Francisco Theatre Pub, World Premiere Weekend, City Light’s Theater Company, GI60, San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artist Lab, West Valley College, and Fringe of Marin. Peter is a graduate from the University of California, Irvine.